During a fall 2015 study abroad in Jordan, then-BYU student Rachel Singer witnessed both an influx of refugees and the reality of their hardships.
But when she came home, people were less understanding of the refugees’ plight than she’d hoped.
“It wasn’t as big of a deal (in the US),” Singer, who graduated in April in Middle East studies and Arabic, said. “And not a lot of people really knew about it or wanted to do stuff about it, and it was very controversial, too.”
Unable to forget her experiences, Singer and other students from the same study abroad started Run4Refuge. The 5K race, 10K race and culture fair is designed to raise money for refugees while celebrating their cultures.
Now in its second year, Singer said the event helps other people as well as refugees.
“On one hand it’s helping refugees, and then on the other hand … it empowers people who feel helpless to help refugees feel like they can do something,” she said.
Singer said a little more than 500 people raced last year. She couldn’t give an estimate for this year because most people sign up within the last week before the race. According to its website, the race raised over $12,000 for last year’s beneficiary, Doctors Without Borders.
Though runners pay a registration fee, the culture fair is open to everyone. It will feature everything from Middle Eastern music to booths selling arts and crafts made by refugees, according to BYU student Maggie Kuta.
Other attractions, according to the event’s Facebook page, include food trucks, calligraphy, henna and face paint. Kuta is overseeing the culture fair and said there will also be more representation from non-profit organizations than last year, making this year’s event more refugee-focused.
“We’d really love for (people) to get to know refugees and their cultures and find more ways that they can get involved on a more regular basis,” Kuta said.
All proceeds from both the race and culture fair will go toward refugee relief nonprofit organization Lifting Hands International, which runs a full-time volunteer team in the Iraqi Yazidi refugee camp in northern Greece. The camp is overseen by the Greek military and houses more than 500 refugees. The refugees generally live on dry bread and other military food, reside in tents and have little to no access to education and employment.
Lifting Hands International provides vital services such as basic food and hygiene, German and English classes, and psycho-social services. The organization also facilitates yoga, music classes and children’s activities.
“You have refugees just living in camps for decades,” said Lifting Hands International founder Hayley Smith. “The limbo that refugees are living in, this is when they need the help the most.”
Smith graduated from BYU in 2007 in English with minors in Arabic and media arts. She started Lifting Hands International in 2016 while still working a full-time job. However, Lifting Hands International grew so quickly that it soon replaced her full-time job.
The organization has several major programs, from the volunteers in Greece to a Utah-based service that works with another organizations to collect, pack and ship essential items to refugee camps in Jordan and Lebanon.
Smith said the number of refugees Lifting Hands International serves varies month-to-month depending on resources. This year, it has already provided food, shoes and sleeping bags for 10,000 refugees.
She said she wants people to recognize how easy it is to help refugees.
“(People) think ‘Oh, if it’s so large, if it’s so bad, then there’s nothing I can do,’ and that’s absolutely nonsense,” she said. “I think people also need to realize that just helping one person at a time is key.”
Run4Refuge committee member Yuki Strong has been in charge of compiling stories of real refugees. Each runner will receive a profile before the race, and when they reach the finish line, they’ll find out where their refugee made it — or where they didn’t.
“Some of the people don’t make it to America or their family members die, and I think that’s pretty eye opening,” said Strong, a BYU neuroscience student.
“At some point I thought it was too graphic, but I realized these are real people,” Strong continued, “and we need to be aware that we have a lot of privilege and we’re in a really great position to be able to help them.”
Smith said it devastates her that so many people make the refugee crisis into a political issue rather than a humanitarian one.
“Refugees are victims of war,” she said. “They didn’t do anything to ask for what’s going on.”
Singer added that though she understands why people often feel distanced from this issue, it’s still something everyone should care about.
“We’re all human, and (the refugee crisis) is a human tragedy that we all really relate to,” she said. “We need to help these people as much as we can … so that we’re not just looking out for ourselves.”
The Run4Refuge 10K will start on the Provo River Trail at 9 a.m. on Oct. 21, with the 5K starting at 9:30 a.m. The 5K costs $15 while the 10K costs $20, and people of all ages and running ability are invited to participate. The culture fair will be held in the nearby park. Direct donations can also be made through the Run4Refuge website.